Ringworld Theory: Did Teela Brown Have Bad Luck?

In Larry Niven’s Ringworld, the alien Puppeteers have secretly been selectively breeding humans for being lucky, which they believe (correctly) is actually a psychic probability manipulation ability. (This seems a little weird because natural selection already involves a lot of luck on the individual level, but let’s just roll with it.) They had concluded from Earth’s history that humans were already lucky, and they tried to enhance this trait by encouraging an overpopulated Earth of 18 billion people to set up a lottery for the right to have children (one of several allowed methods of qualifying).

Two hundred years later, the Puppeteer Nessus is recruiting people for a very dangerous mission to Ringworld. In order to ensure the mission’s success, he recruits an extremely lucky human named Teela Brown. Teela’s ancestors were all winners of the Birthright Lottery for the past five generations, and Nessus hopes that her good luck will help the entire mission survive.

However, the mission eventually goes badly, and Nessus decides that Teela wasn’t lucky after all because if she were, she wouldn’t have wound up on this very dangerous mission. Their pilot, Louis Wu, disagrees. He says that Teela’s luck simply doesn’t rub off on the people around her. In fact, if someone attacks them, they’re going to miss her, but that makes them more likely to hit the person standing next to her.

I’ve always thought Louis didn’t go far enough, though. He didn’t seem to recognize the full implications of the situation. Nessus was indeed wrong; Teela Brown was lucky, but she was even luckier than either of them seemed to realize. And that fact should terrify Nessus far more than if she wasn’t.

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The Science of Project Hail Mary

Andy Weir’s latest book, Project Hail Mary, is a very good hard science fiction tale about a journey to another solar system in search of a way to save Earth from disaster. Mr. Weir always does mostly pretty good science in his books, but sadly, no author is perfect, especially as Weir is a computer engineer by trade and not an astrophysicist.

I had a few minor quibbles with the book that were mostly focused around how slow the scientists are to figure things out. Those aren’t really wrong, but I would say they felt unrealistic. However, those things could just be there so that the book doesn’t get too far ahead of the reader. More on that in my review of the book.

However, there were two aspects of the science in the book that did include rather large mistakes. Neither one is completely story-breaking, but they do add complications—one of them glaringly obvious (to me as an exoplanetary scientist), the other one much subtler.

Warning: MAJOR spoilers for Project Hail Mary below. Do not click unless you’ve read all the way to the end.

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Essay: Who Was Really the Richest Person in History?

Every so often, some business magazine or other notable publication will publish a list of the richest historical figures of all time. Topping the list is usually John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil and the first person ever to earn a billion United States dollars. If it’s not Rockefeller, number one is usually somebody with “King” or “Emperor” in front of his name…which doesn’t really seem fair. After all, as Antonie de Saint-Exupéry wrote, “Kings do not own, they reign over. It is a very different matter.”

To me, that raises the question, what is the fairest way to compare the wealth of a Roman emperor to an oil baron to Jeff Bezos? What does such great wealth really mean in an economy so different from the one we have today? And which one of them really is the richest person in history?

Surprisingly, I don’t think it’s someone from the historical lists…and I decided to put together an essay to find out.

Click here to read the rest of this essay.

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Writer’s History #3 – Dr. Benjamin Stevens Interview

#34 – Time Travel Part I: The Classics A Reader's History of Science Fiction

Time travel had a long history in science fiction, but it noticeably ramped up beginning in the 80s. In this episode, we explore some of the classic and iconic time travel stories of recent decades. Book recommendation: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. Other works discussed: Timescape by Gregory Benford Eon by Greg Bear Back to the FutureThe TerminatorBill and Ted's Excellent AdventureDoomsday Book by Connie Willis Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger See also the Jimmy Kimmel Back to the Future sketch.
  1. #34 – Time Travel Part I: The Classics
  2. #33 – Military Science Fiction
  3. #32 – Galactic Civilizations
  4. #31 – Alien Artifacts and Alien Contact
  5. Writer's History #4 – Daniel Bensen Interview

Dr. Benjamin Stevens is a professor of classical studies who researches the relationship between the ancient/classical tradition and science fiction and fantasy. In this wide-ranging interview, we discuss what makes sci-fi distinctive, classicism and modernity, ancient aliens, and more.

Dr. Steven’s profile.
Classical Traditions in Science Fiction, ed. by Brett Rogers and Benjamin Stevens.

Dr. Steven’s book recommendations:
The Just City/Thessaly Trilogy by Jo Walton
Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

Check out this episode!

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Book Review: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Project Hail Mary, First Edition Cover (2021).jpg

Andy Weir, of The Martian and Artemis fame recently put out his third novel, Project Hail Mary. In his most expansive work yet, Weir takes us out of the Solar system entirely to meet Ryland Grace, an astronaut who wakes up with no memory on an interstellar starship. As he slowly pieces his memories back together, he learns a horrifying truth: Earth is dying. Or more specifically, the Sun is being colonized by a strange “space algae” called Astrophage, which is absorbing sunlight, causing it to dim enough to plunge Earth into a new ice age. Ryland has been sent on a mission to Tau Ceti, the only nearby star that doesn’t seem to have Astrophage, to try to find a way to fix the Sun. Unfortunately…it’s a one way trip. And also, things are only starting to get crazy.

I definitely liked this book. It has some interesting new ideas and is mostly well-researched, and most importantly, it tells an engaging story with a very relatable main character. However, I felt like it was a bit too overextended to quite live up to the quality of Weir’s other books.

My rating: 4 out of 5.

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#28 – Children’s Sci-Fi in the New Wave

#34 – Time Travel Part I: The Classics A Reader's History of Science Fiction

Time travel had a long history in science fiction, but it noticeably ramped up beginning in the 80s. In this episode, we explore some of the classic and iconic time travel stories of recent decades. Book recommendation: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. Other works discussed: Timescape by Gregory Benford Eon by Greg Bear Back to the FutureThe TerminatorBill and Ted's Excellent AdventureDoomsday Book by Connie Willis Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger See also the Jimmy Kimmel Back to the Future sketch.
  1. #34 – Time Travel Part I: The Classics
  2. #33 – Military Science Fiction
  3. #32 – Galactic Civilizations
  4. #31 – Alien Artifacts and Alien Contact
  5. Writer's History #4 – Daniel Bensen Interview

Children’s science fiction was still an unusual and peripheral category during the New Wave, but it did produce some important new classics. In this episode, we explore the highlights of what kids were reading during this time.

Book recommendations:
For upper elementary and middle school: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.
For lower elementary: The Iron Giant/The Iron Man by Ted Hughes

Farah Mendelsohn on children’s sci-fi.
My post about A Wrinkle in Time and The Chronicles of Narnia.

Other books and authors mentioned:
Andre Norton
The Tripods trilogy by John Christopher
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

Check out this episode!

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#27 – Feminist Science Fiction

Among the various social changes that accompanied the New Wave, this time period saw the rise of second-wave feminism. In this episode, we explore how that movement influenced the genre of science fiction.

Book recommendation: The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Tor Books poll on women in speculative fiction.
Eric Leif Davin’s Partners in Wonder.
Sable Aradia’s review of “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”
My blog posts on The Handmaid’s Tale: Part 1, Part 2
Jan Misali/Conlang Critic on Láadan.
Princeton article on Láadan.
Mary Robinette Kowal on women in sci-fi.

Other works discussed:
“The Screwfly Solution” by James Tiptree Jr.
“Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” by James Tiptree Jr.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

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Writer’s History #2 – Kira Leigh Interview

In this episode, I interview Kira Leigh, author of the new, anime-inspired space epic, Constelis Voss, Volume 1.

Kira’s website.

Kira’s TV recommendations:
Farscape
Earth 2

Check out this episode!

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#26 – Vonnegut, Adams, and Modern Satire

While many early works of proto-sci-fi were satires like Gulliver’s Travels, satirical works also appear in modern sci-fi. In this episode, we take a look at the two most famous authors of this subgenre, Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams.

Book recommendation: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.

Vonnegut’s letter to his family during World War II.

Other works discussed:
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Check out this episode!

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#25 – Strange New Worlds

While much of the New Wave was about exploring inner space, some authors were still writing about exploring other words. In this episode, we see how this subgenre of “strange new worlds sci-fi” developed, both through Star Trek and through the literature of the time.

Book recommendation: Inverted World by Christopher Priest.

The Sci-Fi Encyclopedia on aliens, mentioning the influence of John W. Campbell.
Neil deGrasse Tyson’s interview with Nichelle Nichols.
Shannon Chamberlain on fanfiction.

Other works mentioned:
Solaris by Stanisław Lem
Dune by Frank Herbert
Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey
Doctor Who
Star Trek: The Original Series

Check out this episode!

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